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From Trauma to Triumph

Saralee Perel

Author Saralee Perel

By: Saralee Perel

Not long ago, I woke up one morning and discovered I couldn't walk. The doctor said that two vertebrae in my neck had quickly shifted, resulting in choking off my spinal cord. This was not the result of an accident. It came out of the blue. I had emergency surgery in Boston, but the spinal cord damage has left me disabled -- physically.

I was quoted in a magazine, "If anyone says ‘something good has come from this, "I'll strangle them." I meant it then. But not now.

At first I was stunned and depressed, and occasionally I still am. But I have learned so much from this experience. Naturally, I wish I had discovered these things without having to go through a life-altering illness as the motivational force.

First, I've learned that we don't need to be a tower of inspiration to anybody but ourselves.

Accepting the reality
Sometimes when I read stories about people who have had terrible things happen to them and come out on the other side by doing something miraculous, I get down on myself in comparison. Like breast cancer survivors who go on to write inspirational books or the amazing wheelchair-bound people who complete the Boston marathon with just the strength of their arms. Of course, people like this are spectacular. But when we try to measure up, often our self-assessments don't make the same heroic grades. My point is this: that is okay. For me, it's an Olympic moment when I take the garbage out, though it won't make newspaper headlines or give me an interview with Barbara Walters. But most importantly, it is my marathon, my championship.

I've also learned that present moment living is the only way to go. Will my vertebrae shift in other areas of my spine? The neurologist says it's "unlikely." But he didn't say, "No." I can choose to ruin my day by worrying about something that may never happen. Or I can choose to live in the present. I know this is very tough. I've always been a worrier about the what if's. But you know, that list can be infinite. My husband taped a saying from a fortune cookie to the front of our fridge. It says, "Don't trouble trouble till trouble troubles you."

When I first became disabled, I'd hate it when I'd go to a restaurant and a server would say, "Watch your step." I hated it because I couldn't accept the fact that I could barely walk. I was in denial and wished everyone around me would be too. When my husband installed a safety bar in the shower, I was angry and defensive. "I don't need that!" I said. But I did and always will. I'm no longer in denial. I can't be. Now, when someone warns me about a step, I don't take offense. I appreciate it. With or without an illness, it never diminishes us to receive help. People want to help others. It makes them feel good.

Lots of life is about perspective. Problems have a vastly different hierarchy now. If the kitchen's a mess, I don't really care. If my blouse isn't ironed and has a few wrinkles, I don't care. If I pull a muscle or have a cold, it's annoying but not the end of the world.

Appreciating life for what it is
I wish it didn't take this experience to teach me not to take so many things for granted. Last week I met my pal Julie for lunch. While heading towards our lunch table, she suggested we stop to let others pass. As a woman scooted by us, Julie said, "I bet she doesn't appreciate that she can walk like that." Now I appreciate my legs, though they're wobbly, and my arms that work fine and my family, friends, pets, hot breakfasts and pizza with extra cheese. Oooh the list is endless!

And finally, I've discovered that coping and thriving are two very different things.

When I think of coping, I think of Band-Aids. Of course at times they're needed, such as to protect a scratch from getting further nicked. Coping means to me the same as managing -- making do, not letting things get worse.

Thriving is a different story. Thriving means, in my mind, not just protecting ourselves from further hurt, but enhancing, and actually making things far better.

Thriving and coping take on two meanings
I look at people who deal successfully with problems, whether they be physical, emotional or situational (such as loss of a job), as those who cope or those who thrive.

At first I just coped, but eventually I decided that wasn't enough. Although, it's not easy at times, I aim to thrive. I'm not just pleased when I can walk one extra step, I'm elated. I don't want to focus on my disabilities. I want to marvel at my abilities.

The shifting of my vertebrae took away my chances of running, climbing or walking more than a few yards at a time, but it didn't touch my often-frightened though rarely stoppable determination to thrive.

That part was left intact.

Award-winning columnist, Saralee Perel, welcomes e-mails as sperel@saraleeperel.com or via her website: www.saraleeperel.com.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3001, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.